Making the leap into self-employment
My journey into self-employment started much sooner than I had anticipated. I had been fortunate enough to volunteer as a National Trust warden (originally through the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Scheme) from my mid-teens. As I was close to completing my Countryside Management Degree at Aberystwyth University, I applied for a job with a small UK charity as a conservation officer. I had specific experience relevant to the post stemming from my NT experience and was offered the job. I looked at the low salary, the London location (having completely loved three years in Aberystwyth which is 90mins drive from the nearest motorway and 2 hours from the nearest city!) and the lack of mention of ‘must have a car’ and decided it was not the job for me. I can now look back and see it was the right decision, but shortly afterwards and probably fifty job applications later, most with not even an acknowledgement and certainly no interview, I felt pretty silly. Another unemployed graduate!
After that followed some self-employed gardening and landscaping work, some forestry work for two winters (thinning, weeding/beating-up, and planting), before I landed two large bat survey contracts one for the National Trust and one for Forestry Commission Wales – both at historic landscape sites in mid Wales. The FC survey report was noticed by the Forest District Manager who offered me a part time ‘caretaker’ estate warden job for a few months. Over 7 years I progressed from Warden to Estate Manager to Conservation Manager, but always continued my self-employed work, carrying out wildlife surveys (mostly for bats, but also other mammals, reptiles and nesting birds). As I was on a fixed term contract with FC for most of this time, I wanted to keep my freelance work going and had some regular architect clients. It made for long working hours but enabled me to save up enough money to put a deposit down to buy my first house. This nicely takes me to my first two tips about becoming your own boss:
Before you go self-employed:
Tip 1. Make sure you have savings to cover a lean period of earnings. A part time job to support your early self-employed work can be a lifesaver for your survival cash-flow, until you have a more predictable income. Try to get 3-6 months survival income saved up before you make the leap.
Tip 2. If you intend to buy a house, do it before you leave full time employment. Otherwise you are likely to have to wait until you have at 3-5 years trading accounts in order to stand any chance of getting a mortgage.
The FC caught me out by offering me a permanent contract as a Conservation Manager, but still managing the Hafod Estate (www.hafod.org). By this point I had managed to generate quite a lot of work – mainly bat surveys for architects and planning consultants that I had worked for previously – enough that I was too busy to have a full-time job as well. Remarkably, the FC let me take on a permanent contract on part time hours (a 5-day fortnight) so I could honour the freelance work I was now committed to. This was a great way to mentally and financially prepare for going full time self-employed. Then I finally resigned about fifteen months later after a very enjoyable 7.5 years.
Preparing to be your own boss:
Tip 3. Try to develop a broad set of skills. When you become your own boss, you are suddenly the labourer, administrator, contract negotiator, accountant and main operative all in one. It can be overwhelming at times.
Tip 4. It is much more relaxing if you can gradually exit from your current employment whilst you become established, or keep a few employed hours in another job to keep your cashflow healthy.
At this point I decided to brand the company Wildwood Consulting (named after the Wildwood – the great forest that once covered most of the UK), and soon afterwards incorporated to become a Limited Company – both for credibility and for some of the financial and indemnity benefits of being a company rather than a sole trader. More tips here too:
Tip 5. Don’t underestimate the value of good professional support. Ask around for recommendations when you are looking for legal and accountancy support. Three ‘companies’ and fourteen years later I still use the same firm of accountants even though I now live 2.5 hours drive away.
Tip 6. Take time to understand the basics of company finance, tax, shareholders, pension etc. Even if it doesn’t seem relevant at the time, getting everything set up correctly will pay dividends later. If you set everything up correctly at the start you will reap the rewards later.
On becoming Limited I decided to slightly change the name of the company to Wildwood Ecology Limited so it ‘does what it says on the tin’…
Tip 7. Consider long term branding from the start. Even as a sole trader you can have a trading name (I was “Richard Crompton trading as Wildwood Consulting”). It should be easy to identify what a company does from its name.
Tip 8. Will your customers use alphabetic directories and lists to find you? If so try and choose a name that starts early in the alphabet (not with a ‘W’ for example!) once you are established none of this matters, but at the start try make everything as friction-free as possible.
After relocating to Cardiff for personal reasons, I was
approached by an Australian company that made environmental
monitoring equipment; I had used their bat detectors for years. They
approached me to help them establish a European base in Cardiff and
I became a part time sales representative, with my commission going
straight into the company. Whilst not something I ever intended to
do, I did enjoy it, and got to travel to conferences and events all
over Europe, went to Australia for a product development workshop,
and devised the concept for a new bat detector which is still sold
today. The income this generated over 2.5 years gave me and my
business partner the confidence to hire more staff.
During this period at Wildwood, I had some of my proudest achievements; bringing in a business partner when it was clear I could no longer manage alone; and taking on staff was a terrific highlight – not without its challenges - but I was hugely privileged to have an amazingly skilled team of colleagues.
Look beyond the core business:
Tip 9. Look at all possible opportunities. Growing a company requires funds; you either generate it yourself or borrow it. Sometimes a short-term opportunity is worth a temporary diversion of your time if it is profitable.
Tip 10. Surround yourself with people who can do the things you struggle with and bring wider experiences and knowledge!
In 2016, on the verge of fatherhood, I made the difficult decision to leave Wildwood Ecology in the capable hands of my business partner so I could become a part-time dad, to enable my wife to also continue her career part-time, and develop the training angle of my work (especially the Bat Licence Training Course working with Sandie Sowler - my amazing training partner of over ten years). Also to develop a completely new business approach; support, advice and troubleshooting. I formed Ecology on Demand (as a trading name of Richard Crompton Limited!) to help other ecologists with complex bat projects, and short-term specialist support on an ad-hoc basis. After just two years it is too early to declare it a success, but I love the variety of the work, have a great pool of regular clients and new ones arriving all the time. New developments in 2019 include the launch of Complete Bat Training – the evolution of the Bat Licence Training Course after ten years to cater to the needs of professional ecologists, and more titles in my short course programme. Providing training and coaching in business skills is also on the roadmap…along with many more ideas besides!
Richard Crompton is Director of Richard Crompton Ltd, runs the Ecology on Demand Service (www.EcologyOD.co.uk) and co-runs the Bat Training Partnership (www.BatTraining.co.uk) home of the Bat Licence Training Course. He started freelance ecology work in 1998 and was the founding director of Wildwood Ecology Ltd which he left in 2016. He is President of Cardiff Bat Group and was listed in the Who’s Who of Young Business Leaders 3 years running as a Director of the Bat Conservation Trust. He has been awarded Chartered Environmentalist status and is a Fellow of the Linnean Society of London.
You can connect with Richard on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/EcologyonDemand/